In Make It So, I posited my definition of an interface as “all parts of a thing that enable its use,” and I still think it’s a useful one. With this definition in mind, we can speak of each of those components and capabilities above (less the invisible ones) and evaluate its parts according to the criteria I’ve posited for all wearable technology:
Sartorial (materially suitable for wearing)
Social (fits into our social lives)
Easy to access and use
Tough to accidentally activate
Having apposite inputs and outputs (suitable for use while being worn)
It’s sartorial and easy to access/use. It’s ergonomic, well designed for grabbing, fitting into the ear canal, staying in place, and pulling back out again. Its speakers produce perfect sound and the wirelessness makes it as unobtrusive as it can be without being an implant.
It’s slightly hidden as a social signal, and casual observers might think the user is speaking to himself. This has, in the real world, become less and less of a social stigma, and in the world of Her, it’s ubiquitous, so that’s not a problem for that culture.
If interface is the collection of inputs and outputs, interaction is how a user uses these along with the system’s programming over time to achieve goals. The voice interaction described above, in fact, covers most of the interaction he has with her. But there are a few other back-and-forths worth noting.
When Theodore starts up OS1, after an installation period, a male voice asks him four questions meant to help customize the interface. It’s a funny sequence. The emotionless male voice even interrupts him as he’s trying to thoughtfully answer the personal questions asked of him. As far as an interaction, it’s pretty bad. Theodore is taken aback by its rudeness. It’s there in the film to help underscore how warm and human Samantha is by comparison, but let’s be clear: We would never want real world software to ask open-ended and personal questions of a user, and then subsequently shut them down when they began to try and answer. Bad pattern! Bad!
Of course you don’t want Theodore bonding with this introductory AI, so it shouldn’t be too charming. But let’s ask some telling closed-ended questions instead so his answers will be short, still telling, and you know, let him actually finish answering. In fact there is some brilliant analysis out there about what those close ended questions should be.
Seamless transition across devices
Samantha talks to Theodore through the earpiece frequently. When she needs to show him something, she can draw his attention to the cameo phone or a desktop screen. Access to these visual displays help her overcome one of the most basic challenges to an all-voice interface, i.e. people have significant challenges processing aurally-presented options. If you’ve ever had to memorize a list of seven items while working your way through an interactive voice response system, you’ll know how painful this can be. Some other user of OS1 who had no visual display might find their OSAI much less useful.
Theodore isn’t engaging Samantha constantly. Because of this, he needs ways to disengage from interaction. He has lots of them.
Closing the cameo (a partial signal)
Pulling the earpiece out (an unmistakable signal)
Telling her with language that he needs to focus on something else.
He also needs a way to engage, and the reverse of these actions work for that: putting the earpiece in and speaking, or opening the cameo.
In addition to all this, Samantha also needs a way to signal when she needs his attention. She has the illuminated band around the outside of the cameo as well as the audible beeps from the earpiece. Both work well.
Though all these ways, OS1 has signaling attention covered, and it’s not an easy interaction to get right. So the daily interactions with OS1 are pretty good. But we can also evaluate it for its wearableness, which comes up next. (Hint: it’s kind of a mixed bag.)
Depending on how you slice things, the OS1 interface consists of five components and three (and a half) capabilities.
1. An Earpiece
The earpiece is small and wireless, just large enough to fit snugly in the ear and provide an easy handle for pulling out again. It has two modes. When the earpiece is in Theodore’s ear, it’s in private mode, hearable only by him. When the earpiece is out, the speaker is as loud as a human speaking at room volume. It can produce both voice and other sounds, offering a few beeps and boops to signal needing attention and changes in the mode.
2. Cameo phone
I think I have to make up a name for this device, and “cameo phone” seems to fit. This small, hand-sized, bi-fold device has one camera on the outside an one on the inside of the recto, and a display screen on the inside of the verso. It folds along its long edge, unlike the old clamshell phones. The has smartphone capabilities. It wirelessly communicates with the internet. Theodore occasionally slides his finger left to right across the wood, so it has some touch-gesture sensitivity. A stripe around the outside-edge of the cameo can glow red to act as a visual signal to get its user’s attention. This is quite useful when the cameo is folded up and sitting on a nightstand, for instance. Continue reading →
Me: Well…I like to think of myself as a design critic looking though the lens of–
The computer: “In your voice, I sense hesitance, would you agree with that?”
Me: Maybe, but I would frame it as a careful consider–
The computer: “How would you describe your relationship with Darth Vader?”
Me: It kind of depends. Do you mean in the first three films, or are we including those ridiculous–
The computer: Thank you, please wait as your individualized operating system is initialized to provide a review of OS1 in Spike Jonze’s Her.
A review of OS1 in Spike Jonze’s Her
Ordinarily I wait for a movie to make it to DVD before I review it, so I can watch it carefully, make screen caps of its interfaces, and pause to think about things and cross reference other scenes within the same film, or look something up on the internet.